Create. Obliterate. Repeat.
What does Yayoi Kusama’s autobiography tell us about the artist behind “Infinity Rooms”?
by Andrew Alexander
When she was a little girl in Japan, Yayoi Kusama wrote a letter addressed to the President of France:
Dear sir, I would like to see your country. Please help me.
A careful reader will detect in these words not just an interest in seeing the many wonders of France, but a desperate desire to leave someplace else.
This revealing little childhood letter appears early on in Kusama’s 2002 autobiography Infinity Net as a sort of confession. The book ultimately makes clear that this desire to depart -- especially when understood in its broadest, most existential sense, what Kusama came to call a desire for “obliteration” -- remained one of the defining impulses of her life. “This resolve,” she writes, ”was intimately connected with the fundamental question of why I continued creating art.” (Kusama recounts that the President of France was unable to rescue her as she’d hoped; his written response was brief, kind and formal, even somewhat chilly in its suggestion that she might begin by learning French).
Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, (1966), during the 33rd Venice Biennale. Photo: dazeddigital.com
Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano, a place she describes as a drearily provincial, conservative town in a depressingly isolated region of Japan. However, her book begins with what might best be described as her second birth: her arrival in America as an adult in 1957.
As she tells it, this re-birth was an auspicious but painful one. Illness, poverty, struggle and anonymity mark her early years in New York, and she describes them in detail, conveying, as a sort of introduction, her enigmatically intense dedication to her art-making. The loneliness, sordidness and stress of those early years -- far exceeding even the familiar deprivations of Bohemian life -- emerge as one of the book’s most memorable notes. “My bed was an old door that someone had left out on the street,” she writes. And later: “Sometimes I would gather discarded fish heads from the fishmonger’s rubbish and carry them home in my rag bag, along with the rotting outer leaves of cabbages tossed out by a greengrocer.” It’s difficult not to be impressed.
As bad as New York can get, Kusama still often contrasts the energy and progressiveness of America with the Japan she left behind, a place we come to understand that she totally reviles. The autobiography has been translated into many languages, but it was originally written in Japanese for a Japanese audience. (In Japan, Kusama’s reputation as a writer almost equals, if not exceeds, her reputation as an artist). Kusama addresses her Japanese readers by describing her life in New York City in terms they would recognize. She brings the coldness of a New York winter to life by writing, “New York is almost as far north as Sakhalin Island.” Kusama feels compelled to explain herself where few Western artists would. When describing her first solo exhibition, she apologizes to the reader for her hope that it might succeed. “Never before had I prayed for anything so vulgar as the success of a solo exhibition, but that is how desperate my circumstance as an alien had left me.”
Yayoi Kusama, From the Driving Image Show, (1964), Photo: Environment
That intended audience becomes almost another personage conjured up by the book, summoned, it seems, in order to be insulted and dressed down. From its opening pages to its last, Infinity Net often reads like a hate letter to Japan. Kusama primarily directs her anger towards Japan’s adherence to tradition, “I cannot help but feel that Japan is twisted and primitive,” she writes. (It’s worth noting that later in the book, when describing a first visit home, she derides Japan’s modernization. “‘My homeland had lost what was good about her traditions and was growing ugly as she modernised,” she writes).
But throughout, adherence to tradition is the primary target of her loathing. “I hated the oppressive, hierarchical arrangement of the art world in Kyoto and the ubiquitous master-disciple system,” she writes. “It was all so old-fashioned and hidebound, and it sickened me to see it in action. Such relationships provided nothing but restrictions and chains, and they had a tight grip on the school itself.”
Stifling repressiveness and unquestioning adherence to tradition are qualities she likewise despises in her mother, who emerges in the book as a sort of terrible antagonist to Kusama’s longing for freedom and art-making. Kusama’s fame and success don’t resolve anything, but merely increase the scope of her mother’s humiliation. She quotes a letter from her mother, ”The fact that you have become a national disgrace is an insult to our ancestors, Yayoi, and I’ve just returned from the cemetery, where I went once again today to ask their forgiveness. If only you had died of that bad throat infection you came down with as a child….”
Yayoi Kusama, (1939), Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
The rift runs deep. In describing a home visit late in her life, Kusama sneeringly compares her own art collection (consisting, of course, of work by her peers, friends and colleagues including Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Joseph Cornell and the like) to the art hanging in the provincial Japanese living room of her mother’s home. She finds her own collection superior, so much so that she devotes several hundred words to detailing her better taste.
This harsh criticism of her homeland notwithstanding, Kusama, even in translation, is a captivatingly beautiful writer, and it’s delightful to encounter that rarity, an artist who can effectively elucidate her own work. Her precise description of her Infinity Net paintings, both in their technique and in their effect, is the best a reader could ever hope for:
“In these paintings, a static, undivided, two-dimensional space adheres to the flat canvas in the form of contiguous microscopic specks that follow one another endlessly forming a tangible surface texture that expresses a strangely expansive accumulation of mass. The layers of dry white paint, which result from a single touch of brush repeated tirelessly over time, lend specificity to the infinity of space within an extraordinarily mundane visual field.”
Surprisingly, Kusama is inordinately interested in what others have written about her work. In Infinity Net, she quotes full paragraphs from newspaper reviews that are more than six decades old (such quotes make up the bulk of several chapters), and she recounts how she once distributed flyers with a prominent critic’s complimentary remarks about her work to passersby at a New York gallery.
Yayoi Kusama, Kusama in her New York Studio, (c.1958–59), Image: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama,
Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
Late in the book, Kusama describes some of her famous friendships. Joseph Cornell’s mother emerges memorably as another poisonous maternal figure, and there are telling, interesting anecdotes about Cornell, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and others. A great fuss is often made elsewhere about Kusama’s relationship with Georgia O’Keefe, and it is indeed an intriguing connection between two of the most prominent female artists of the modern era. But O’Keefe’s first written response to the then-unknown Kusama as quoted in the autobiography seems more stand-offish than collegial. “When you get to New York, take your pictures under your arm and show them to anyone you think may be interested,” is O’Keefe’s less than helpful, not so insightful nugget of advice to the younger artist. (In fairness, Kusama’s first letter to O’Keefe seems only slightly less desperate and hopeless than her letter to the President of France). The remainder of O’Keefe’s response can easily be read as a plea to be left alone: “You will just have to find your own way the best you can. It seems to me very odd that you are so ambitious to show your paintings here, but I wish the best for you.” O’Keefe remained an encouraging presence in Kusama’s life as the younger artist sought to navigate the New York art world, but as becomes apparent in the book, O’Keefe did so in a way that’s best described as peripheral, a kind soul that preferred to live over the mountains, in the desert, hundreds of miles away from all of that.
Kusama’s hallucinations, neurosis and mental illness appear often in the autobiography, always fascinating, though they remain mysterious. Kusama herself describes her own art, particularly in the creation of her soft phalli, as others have: as a sort of self-therapy. “The only way for me to elude these furtive apparitions is to recreate them visually with paint, pen or pencil in an attempt to decipher what they are.”
Kusama seemingly has a Freudian understanding of her problems; she more or less sets up descriptions of her early life to convey the notion of her childhood home as a sort of incubator for Freudian neuroses. But does her work as an artist really help her sort through her pathologies? Or could it be that the hallucinations have their source in her intense immersion in art? That’s actually hard to parse out. “I woke one day to find the nets I had painted the previous day stuck to the windows,” she writes in a typical passage. “Marveling at this, I went to touch them, and they crawled on and into my skin and hands.” Mania and artistic production, painted image and artist’s hand, hallucination and creation, all merge in the book in a way that they can’t be squeezed back into any simple, benign or rehabilitative narrative.
Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, Venice Biennale, (1966), Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio inc.
Indeed, we hear very little of Kusama’s current life in Tokyo or the treatment she currently receives at the mental hospital where she lives voluntarily. “Since moving to Tokyo I have been extremely prolific” is nearly the sum total of what we learn of her present life. But we have come to understand, this is everything we need to know. For the Kusama of Infinity Net, shutting herself away in a mental hospital in her hated Japan is the happiest of happy endings. “I think I can honestly say this is the best time in my life” she writes. Above and beyond the vicissitudes of culture, experience or personal history (the ostensible subjects of autobiography), Kusama holds the value of creation, and of obliteration, highest. “All of my works are steps on my journey, a struggle for truth that I have waged with pen, canvas and materials.” This, for Kusama, is the only struggle that counts, the only battle in life worth waging.
Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama
Ralph McCarthy (Translator), University of Chicago Press, 2012
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based arts journalist and editor. His features and reviews appear regularly in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Alexander Report, his free email newsletter covering the best of what the arts in Atlanta have to offer, debuts in June.